A version of this article originally appeared in The Big Issue Magazine
By the time you read this a couple of weeks will have passed since the end of the London 2012 Games. The Paralympics are about to start. Politicians will have made grand claims about their long term impact on the state of the nation. But an important effect has not been about retail business generated, or our likelihood to sing and dance down the street dressed as mutton-chopped Victorian engineers or Mod cyclists, as if living in an extended Danny Boyle opening ceremony.
It has been, for this Generation X-er at least, about realising my own children watched a mostly honest and clean international competition full of healthy, natural human bodies, unmarred by Cold War hatred, often sexually exploitative training and the hideous extremes of anabolic steroid doping that scarred a generation of young Eastern Bloc athletes, notably East Germany’s female swimmers and track and field team. Not a large nation, it suddenly took 40 golds at Montreal in 1976, including 11 of the 13 women’s swim events. Several coaches admitted to large-scale doping only in 1991, when the new united Germany occasionally showed a partial interest in uncovering the ghosts of the past 40 years. Like the surprising number of Stasi operatives who managed to hold onto public office, who knows how many other coaches quietly escaped to a lucrative coaching career elsewhere. Very few ever stood trial or went to jail. The effect of years of the drugs meant former shotputter Heidi Krieger had to have a sex change operation. Ageing parents have never learned the whole truth about why their children died suddenly in training.
Sharron Davies, who won silver in the individual medley in Moscow in 1980, was among 5 Olympic swimmers who appealed in 1998 for East German golds to be reassigned after criminal investigations in Berlin, but the IOC refused. That selective justice is one of the many reasons so many journalists remain deeply cynical of the ethics of the IOC.
It was the gymnastics that really did it. While I feel lucky to have watched the waif like perfection of the truly talented 14 year old Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci in 1976, even then there was a brooding anxiety about how much they were exploited by their coaches and their governments. The raising of the minimum age to 16 helped fight the adolescence-suppressing regimen that was the norm in some eastern Bloc countries. Gold medallists Beth Tweddle and especially Gabrielle Douglas from Virginia, with her own remarkable story of graft and determination represent a happier way of achieving elite success.
But London gave a sour reminder of the Cold War too and a revelation about the new front in geo-politics. American John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, described the remarkable record breaking performance of the 16 year old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen as ”suspicious”. He was immediately rebuked by Olympic anti-doping officials, but it was a cruel slur on a young woman, in a sport so rigorously tested now, where many athletes achieve their greatest improvements in their teenage years.
The uncomfortable truth behind the slur (and just imagine a Chinese coach hinting publically of “suspicion” about a Michael Phelps) is that how China achieves elite success is frightening. Beijing’s communist regime has selectively embraced fierce competition – in both economics and in sport and classical music, presenting the West with one of the more uncomfortable challenges of the ends justifying the means.
For every Lang Lang in music, now a multimillionaire, or Ye Shiwen how many others have had the same ability and committment, but failed to win a crucial competition? What lies ahead in China for those have been hothoused since early childhood but failed to get that life changing win? The day after the Olympic closing ceremony noticed my own Asian aunts, normally pushing hard work and more hard work so long as it’s academic, forwarding round in horror by email those photos apparently showing tiny Chinese children, being put through painful gymnastics training.
Some UK papers complained that British swimmers and divers perhaps lacked such all consuming hunger for gold. Compare Tom Daley’s delight at his Bronze on the podium with the look of desolation on the Chinese favourite but silver medallist, Qiu Bo.
As a parent I have found myself in a typical East-West dilemma. I am sure I’m not the only mother who read Amy Chua’s often moving but occasionally chilling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and thought I need to up my game. But for me the moment of London 2012 has been the gracious Beijing Gold medallist Rebecca Adlington, wearing her unexpected first London 2012 bronze and hugging her fellow medallists in delight. I can see her being an inspiration to others – as a coach or in a new career. And with the peace of mind that she chose every step of the way to do what she loves.
How blue pills turned Heidi Krieger into a man Transgriot blogpost 2008
Sharron Davies’ IOC appeal (1998) BBC News report
Olga Korbut & the Soviet gymnastics machine The Independent 1999
Gabrielle Douglas’s journey New York Times August 2012
Ye Shiwen and the US doping slur Global Post August 2012